A major shortcoming of the self-defense world is that it is full of misinformation, untested theory and gimmicks. Like the fitness world’s “blink your way to washboard abs” type of quick-fix programs, the personal-defense market has always been littered with “declassified” courses, secret systems, high-speed devices and other assorted schemes that promise the average desk jockey that he or she will be able to defeat a platoon of Navy SEALS.

If you’re truly serious about personal protection, you need to do your homework and approach everything with a healthy dose of skepticism. Here we’ll guide you through the process of separating fact from fantasy, and lifesaving gear from money-wasting gimmicks.

Fighting is Physical

Let’s start with the basics: If a self-defense situation ends up with actual physical violence, you will have to do something physical to solve your problem. While that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be a UFC-level athlete, it does mean that you need to break contact with your couch if you want to have any real capabilities. Yes, there are experienced martial artists out there who can destroy people with movements so subtle they appear effortless. The talented folks who can really do this possess a set of skills, knowledge and timing that has been developed over a lifetime of study. They didn’t learn what they know in a week, and you won’t be able to either, no matter what the bold print says.

If you want to learn to defend yourself, don’t look for someone who wants to teach you a few self-defense tricks. Real skills take real time and effort to develop. Also, don’t fall prey to the other end of the spectrum, which insists on taking perfectly functional methods of hurting people and turning them into an aerobics or gymnastics routine. Fitness and endurance are definitely assets in a fight, but they are not prerequisites or replacements for skills training.

Good self-defense technique should make sense to you the first time you see it and you should be able to understand and perform the mechanics of it with enough power and intent to hurt someone within a couple of hours of practice. If not, you’re probably not going to be able to use it if you need it.

Things To Look Out For

Let’s face it: People have been fighting for as long as we’ve been people, so there really isn’t much about fighting technique that hasn’t been done before. Sure, somebody may “discover” a technique that he or she didn’t know about previously, but that doesn’t mean it’s new. (It just means the “discoverer” was previously unaware of it.) Look long and hard enough and some fighting art has probably already employed the technique.

Similarly, the idea of “secret” fighting methods is overblown. In my martial arts research, most things that qualify as secrets are, in fact, an individual instructor’s ability to finally explain something that his predecessors couldn’t or weren’t willing to teach properly. Everything is a secret if the person who knows it is incapable of or unwilling to explain it.

Learning respect and gaining insights into another culture are good things and very positive elements of the traditional martial arts. Unfortunately, when the systems of respect of the Asian martial arts migrated to the West, some instructors got carried away with them and took them a bit too far. The market is now filled with masters, grandmasters, sensei, gurus and dozens of other honorifically titled instructors. While many of them are worthy of their titles and have the skills and integrity to back them up, the sad truth is that there are also a significant number of marginally qualified practitioners who have bestowed themselves with lofty titles, 10th-degree black belts and shiny uniforms full of patches. They have also used their minimal knowledge to “invent” new arts and manipulate Asian cultural traditions to demand far more respect than they deserve.

There are many reasons to study the martial arts. If your primary goal is self-defense, be honest about that when you look for an instructor. Observe several classes, watch how the instructor interacts with students and see if what is taught really meets your needs. Be prepared to compromise a little bit to get what you want, but remember that you’re the customer and this is America. You shouldn’t have to settle for or put up with a learning experience that doesn’t meet your needs.

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